Charlie Petch (they/them, he/him) is a disabled/queer/transmasculine multidisciplinary artist who resides in Tkaronto/Toronto. A poet, playwright, librettist, musician, lighting designer, and host, Petch was the 2017 Poet of Honour for SpeakNorth national festival, winner of the Golden Beret lifetime achievement in spoken word with The League of Canadian Poets (2020), and founder of Hot Damn it's a Queer Slam. Petch is a touring performer, as well as a mentor and workshop facilitator. In 2021, they launched Daughter of Geppetto, a multimedia/dance/music/performance poetry piece with Wind in the Leaves (TBA), their first full length poetry collection Why I Was Late in Sept with Brick Books, and their libretto Medusa's Children with Opera QTO.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book was one that was a collection of my photographs I’d taken of my band “The Silverhearts” from 2007 to 2009. It came out when we were on a western tour. After the trip, they left a voicemail saying they didn’t need a saw player if there’s already a Theremin player. Personally I thought we needed less guitar players. They disagreed so I have a lot of those books left. Now I’m a one person show, replaced the band with a loop pedal and now everyone listens to my great ideas. I’m happy my next full book is one I don’t semi quietly resent. Rather, it’s a celebration and a mild anxiety, because, wow, some people are going to read it, and it’s personal, you know?
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I actually started writing mystery stories as an 8 year old. My lateral lisp (which I’ve since done years of speech therapy to correct) meant that my friends were all books, or imaginary. I got that fab new pen that had 4 different pen colours in it, and used a different colour for each character. Later I realized, I just loved dialogue and I went to playwriting. I started writing poetry when I was a teenager, and my first book was created in my early 20’s as a companion piece to an anti-valentine’s night I hosted as my alter ego – Tits McGee, it was called You Make Me Sick – The love poems of Tits McGee. I wrote three more chapbooks as her (that were each tied to hosting events), until I started really write in my own voice. When I found the poetry slam, my playwright heart just leapt. The monologue series of my dreams.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
My writing has always come quickly, I have that ADD brain so it’s just full of words rearranging itself and getting everywhere. I’ve really committed to having deep and careful process, since my mind loves to rush to the finish line. Ever since I did the Spoken Word & Music stint at Banff, I’ve tried to re-create the music hut, and the pin board freedom. So now my books and plays become a kind of wall sculpture of notes hung on twine attached to wire, and little objects the bring life to the whole thing. Some things will take me a day, some will take me 5 years to get right. It really depends on the subject and if there’s growth in the characters that happen because of them, or internally in myself.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Sometimes there’s a tangible spark of an idea, a line that wants more words that I keep in a notebook, or some mornings I’ll just open up a book and point to a page and see if that’s a good prompt for the day. My spoken word theatre shows are something I really put together heavily with a concept and keep in that atmosphere to create, with no real thought of the ending until it shows itself. I think the project really shows itself to me and tells me the medium it would be happiest in and I listen, plan, adjust, or just write for 10 mins to keep up practice and see if I can get a sweet poem that can sit a bit before editing. For this book, I really just put together all my writing since 2014 and my editors found the book inside the manuscript. My next manuscript will have a tight theme and it’s currently a kind of installation project on my wall.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Honestly if you see me not on a stage, I’m quietly waiting to be onstage. I adore performing and being on tour, there is no more content me than when I am in front of an audience. I also love to teach others the craft of public readings, whether they are reading off page or performing memorized work. The more tools you can feel in control of , the better the show. I want everyone to excel and feel confident, I love a good poetry reading.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I am always trying to be aware of language, of my own internalized racism, ableism, misogyny etc., when writing, because I often skirt the line to get points across. I also place myself as a white settler in my work, and consider my audience is not all also this background. I strive to deeply recognize my own position and privilege as a white trans and non-binary person with an invisible disability. I aim to speak to issues of colonization, not only because it hid our genders, but also what it’s done to us all as a society trying to co-exist in a world on fire. I try to not speak over top of anyone, or consider myself someone who speaks on behalf of my immediate community, or any community that is not mine. I strive to find the right words to also platform other’s ideals forward in gestures of solidarity, with credit paid.
Current questions for me are always – What am I cultivating with my work? How do I make it more accessible? How do I make the audience care about something they may not relate to?
I find satire and humour to be such an excellent tool for accessibility, and message parachuting. I try to almost convert audiences into caring about things they likely would never want to address or think about; to do this in a way that feels both embracing and respectful to others who share these obstacles. Just writing about disability is such a trip. How do you get someone to understand something they never have to personally care about something they can’t see or experience. How do you make them believe that ableism affects us all? It’s a constant riddle I try to solve. I once performed a poem about gender at an event in Michigan in 2016 when Tr*mp was running. I was so scared to do it but I know at least one person in the audience decided to change their vote after hearing it. These are the poems I want to put out into the world.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The best poets are the ones who tell the truth, no matter the cost. The ones who are future thinkers and speakers of our difficult histories. I know Socrates was a creepy dude but I remember reading Plato’s Republic and thinking, heck yeah poets should be in positions of power. We all need the truth so bad in order to save the planet, to confront who we are, what we’ve done, and how to work in solidarity with everyone. I really believe our leaders should be spoken word artists, should be 2 Spirit people, how can we even meet climate needs without that level of land experience? We need decolonization, and I see poets in particular, speaking up about all of this. Leadership needs vision, creativity and most of all, the truth. We are living in radical times and poets and indigenous people are on the front lines of these conversations.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Honestly, I loved it. I was gifted so well by Brick Books to have two editors, Nick Thran and Andrea Thompson. Andrea, as we should all know, is one of the originals in spoken word poetry in Toronto and is just wonderful to work with. Nick is an incredible page poet, so he excelled in the edits for the page, and Andrea ensured the sound, pace and presence of the spoken word voice was preserved, as well as did page edits. I was super spoiled and they really reassured me that I had the final decisions around how my work was presented. The final round of copy edits with Alayna Munce really cemented how I want my style to be represented on the page going forward. I’m super excited to know my style thanks to the lenses of such experts as these three.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
My high school drama teacher ordered us to never argue with critique or say anything in our defence. He told us to simply listen to feedback, the person critiquing you is like a professional audience member. You know your work best, so take what you need from them, leave the rest, never argue, and always thank them. It absolutely translates to any moment of critique.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to plays to performance to librettos)? What do you see as the appeal?
I am a lover of atmosphere, so being able to add atmosphere to any work, whether that is in collaboration, or in my own multimedia creation, I just adore being able to present the work in the way I want the audience to experience it. When I worked primarily in theatre, I learned how to do everything so that I could know what to expect and how to achieve it. I find it very easy and natural to move from one genre to the next. Again, thanking my ADD brain for this, because how amazing is it to launch a book, a workshop play, a filmed libretto, a multimedia show and a book all in one year? I didn’t mean to have it all be at once but the past 1.5 years have moved a lot of performances around. Being multidisciplinary means I never have to be tied to one genre. It feels natural to never fit into a box for very long, to always be shifting. As someone who has learned by doing, it also means I’ve not had academia narrow my scope, or expectation of what poetry, music or theatre should be.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I get up, drink Vega Mix, do a little run (ok it’s more like powerwalking), then put on the kettle and do stretches, physio and weight lifting while listening to ambient music, the gay composer Chopin’s nocturnes, or slow pop ballads. If the dog is with me (I share a sweet hound/lab with a dear friend), we have us a wrestle, then I sit down at the computer and attempt to write something before the day takes my access away from the creative brain.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I just let myself stall for a bit. Sometimes I need a break. Then it will all build up and the panic will start because I am so fed by being in a state of creation, and I put a daily prompt back into my practice to keep flexing my poetry brain muscle. I also have a private group I do first drafts with. I always need a bit of an audience, and sometimes I need a deadline. I’m very motivated to please a deadline and/or an audience.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Vicks VapoRub, doggy paws, old books, wet ravines, sawdust, and horseshit. Really we moved so much that I don’t remember a specific home, only a series of places that we lived in while renovating, but these scents will land me back in time. My dog’s paws are the greatest access I have to childhood memories.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Oh yes, some things I see before I write them. Sometimes I play music for inspiration, sometimes I have the song before the words, and sometimes the story shows itself to me in nature. I’m open to all influences, I have a very vessel approach to existing as an artist in this world. I love imagining what insects care about, what a rock might think about getting sat on, as a lonely bullied kid, I had to make friends out of everything around me and script them into my life, so I know the gift of remaining open and hopeful.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I will always thank Kurt Vonnegut for Breakfast of Champions. When I found it at 13, I truly knew, you don’t have to pay attention to traditional form, linear timelines, or cater to an audiences expectation of what novels or anything should be. I loved that he always looked to the science students to find the writers, and avoided the English students. Later, I got his asshole (drawing from the book) tattooed on my armpit by the drummer from my punk/noise band. He really woke up the artist in me.
James Baldwin opened me up to queer writing, to deep atmosphere and prose novels, as well as some of the best critical race discourse that still serves today. I still love a good Tennessee Williams play with all that sweltering Louisiana flair and queer camp palate. Dorothy Parker is also an influence, her sharp wit and notions that kind of come around the corner and slap you in the face, and gosh I love her handprint on me.
My current obsession is A Black Lady Sketch Show, created by Robin Thede. It really has no boundaries and is always so creative, unexpected and totally genius. Truly, I sit in awe of the level of comedy, and thought that’s in every episode. It’s a show that should be studied, like an entire university course should be dedicated to it. It’s just beyond.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Having worked in film for 8 years doing lighting for everyone else’s scripts, I’d love to do my own or jump into a series and join a writer’s room.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I’ve worked in health care since I was 13, I started with volunteering at Bloorview Children’s surgical rehab centre, working with Occupational Therapists. If I had been a good student, I would have loved to had gotten into that field. Being the child of a nurse, who would hang out in emergency rooms after school, I’ve always loved being in that atmosphere and have worked in hospitals, family health teams, retirement residence, bed allocations and as a 911 operator for ambulance. I sometimes return when I need to make a stable income for a while. But the customer service end of it, the being trans at work end, yeah, I’d rather one on one occupational therapy.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I don’t think I do write as opposed to doing something else. More, I feel like I am always holding a series of spinning plates of freelance, and other disciplines. The only thing I don’t feel I can do is relax, and math.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I am still not over how much I enjoyed Gutter Child by Jael Richardson, just everything I could hope for in such an suspenseful and accessibly written book. The last great film I watched, Disclosure, it’s so important to me that everyone watch this documentary on trans people in culture. So many revelations, including finding out an actress I worked with for year (and truly had hysterical laughter with) is a trans woman. I can’t imagine her coming onto set every day with that fear, and all us burly guys, and endure some of the things they’d freely say around set. Also big on Crip Camp (disability pride and revolutionary history) and The Octopus Teacher just was everything my little kid heart needed to see. Oh geez I’m crying at the computer thinking about it rob.. ack. I guess I’m all about documentaries these days.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Currently I’m working on my Winnebago a Go Go Book tour schedule out west (though that’s super hopeful given the news each day) with the wonderful washboard player Danielle Workman (watch out for our band “Washboard Abs” haha). I’m also working on my next manuscript “Poetic Monologues”, and developing my next play “No one’s special at the hot dog cart” – which is basically – everything I needed to know about working in emergency health care, I learned as a teenage hot dog vendor in downtown Toronto”. Part spoken word play, part de-escalation technique workshop that will be developed with Theatre Passe Muraille’s “The Buzz” workshop series in the new year. I’m also preparing to revamp my multimedia/dance collaborative play Daughter of Geppetto with Citadel Theatre and the Wind in the Leaves collective in the winter. Oh yes, and preparing for Top Surgery after a long and very pandemic related delay of around 3 years since I started the process.
In short, I’m working on keeping the plates all spinning still.